Today was the day that every Team Israel baseball player had marked on his calendar since September 22, 2019, when they danced off the field at Nino Cavalli Stadium in Parma, Italy, having clinched a berth at the 2020 Olympic Games. On Friday night, the 24 men on the Team Israel roster were to march into Tokyo's Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies, thus experiencing another dream-come-true in their collective Cinderella story. Days later, they would take the field for the first time and challenge for their ultimate goal, winning an Olympic medal.
Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic put those dreams on hold. The Summer Games were postponed by one year and will now begin on July 23, 2021. It has created an interesting dynamic for Team Israel's players. The group is still tight and gets together for regular Zoom calls, while each pursues his baseball path to ensure they will be in peak form when they get to Tokyo, which is no easy task in the wake of the virus, with lockdowns and league and team closures around the world. But they all know that baseball is secondary in the battle against the pandemic.
"At this time, my thoughts are that I’m happy that everyone is safe and healthy," Coach Eric Holtz shared earlier this week. "It’s an incredible shame that we will not be leaving for Tokyo as planned, but everyone will continue to train and remain ready for the first time the Umpire screams 'Play Ball'."
Coach Holtz’s players echoed their leader's sentiments, though each reflects on the fact that the games were scheduled to start now in his own way.
Danny Valencia: "It’s crazy to think we should be in Tokyo right now."
"It’s crazy to think we should be in Tokyo right now," said Danny Valencia, who with nine seasons in the Major Leagues is one of Team Israel's most accomplished players. "I try to envision what I’d feel like over there both in sport and with my family. I know we were all doing our part in being as prepared as possible to compete for a gold medal. I was feeling really good about how I felt in a baseball sense. Hopefully we can get past this pandemic and reset with clear minds and figure out how to be better than what we are today, come this time next July."
"It doesn’t feel real that today would have been the opening ceremonies. We’re so far removed and so much has happened. The thing I keep coming back to is that everyone all over the world has their own 'would have been' or 'supposed to' so I try to keep perspective and be thankful for the things we do have," the team's ace pitcher Joey Wagman said. "I cannot wait for next summer. It just adds another challenge for this team which has already overcome so many. It gives us another year to prepare in every way and represent Israel to the best of our abilities."
Blake Gailen: "It’s going to be one of the greatest experiences of all of our lifetimes and I can’t think of a better group to share that with."
Slugger Blake Gailen is one of the few who has already put the 2020 games out of his mind and is only looking forward: "It’s crazy how quickly we adapt because the notion of going to the Olympics this year slipped my mind once we knew for sure it was postponed. Once the Olympic committee made it official that the 2020 Olympics are going to be held in 2021, the first notion I had was obviously disappointment; But soon after was the awareness that there’s nothing we can do about it. As surreal as it’s been to qualify for the Olympics, it’s hard to imagine that a year from now we are going to be at the opening ceremonies," he said. "I'm fairly certain that I can speak for everyone in saying that there aren’t really words to describe the excitement and anticipation that are leading up to next year’s Olympic games. It’s not just about playing; it’s going to be one of the greatest experiences of all of our lifetimes and I can’t think of a better group to share that with."
The postponement of the games has been bittersweet for three of the best players Israel's local leagues have ever produced. Alon Leichman, a pitching coach in the Seattle Mariners system; and college baseball players Tal Erel and Asaf Lowengart, had their respective 2020 seasons in the United States taken away. However, that has opened the door for them to take on integral roles with the Israel Association of Baseball by playing in the local Premier League while coaching and mentoring the next generation of stars.
Alon Leichman: "I prefer to focus on the positives… I know that the one-year delay will only make the fire in our team burn stronger."
"I imagine that walking into the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies will be one of the greatest moments of my athletic career," Leichman said. "I have an uneasy feeling when I think about the fact that we would be in Tokyo now under normal circumstances. However, I prefer to focus on the positives. I embrace the time I get to spend at home with my family and the time coaching and playing with the guys in Israel. I view this time as a unique opportunity to train in Israel and at the same time help get more exposure to the sport. It's been amazing. And I know that the one-year delay will only make the fire in our team burn stronger before we go to Japan next year."
No man has a deeper perspective on how far Israel baseball has come to be in the position it is now than team Israel GM Peter Kurtz: "Its been a long road to reach where we are today as Olympians, starting with the IBL in 2007, and continuing on to our three appearances in the World Baseball Classic and our frequent appearances in European Championship B and C Pool tournaments. The guys have played under insurmountable baseball conditions and to play in four tournaments last summer in a span of 10 weeks and come out as one of six Olympic teams was the highlight of my 20-year career with the IAB, so far.
"I look forward to the next chapter, and although it’s frustrating to wait an additional year, its something all Olympic athletes need to deal with. Our players are keyed up and aiming towards July 2021 and I have no doubt they will be ready. It's also given us an opportunity to improve the team, adding Ian Kinsler and WBC Team Israel alumni Ryan Lavarnway, who was our MVP in Korea in 2017, and Scotty Burcham, who got the winning hit against Korea in that tournament and played a stellar shortstop. It has also given us an extra year of fundraising for the IAB and our goal of developing fields all over Israel and increasing the number of players in Israel two, three and four-fold. It is for them that we are playing in the Olympics and I do hope that today there are kids playing in Beit Shemesh, Ra'anana and Tel Aviv who will be on the roster of the Israel Olympic Team in Los Angeles in 2028."